When we teach our children the 7 UU principles, instead of “we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people” we simplify it a little bit and say, “each person is important.”
In my opinion, that first principle kind of covers it. If we acknowledge that each person is important, that we all matter and have the same worth, then the rest of them come along naturally, right?
I thought the same thing when I studied social work. The National Association of Social Workers has a code of ethics that social work students begin studying their first year. The very first item in the code, section 1.01, reads:
“Social workers’ primary responsibility is to promote the well-being of clients.”
Following the same logic as before, if a social worker is to promote the wellbeing of their clients, then the rest of the code really goes back to that. We don’t sleep with clients because it does not promote their well-being. We do stay culturally competent because it does promote their well-being. We engage in continuing education because it promotes the well-being of our clients, but we don’t charge them outrageous rates for services because that doesn’t.
Let’s pretend for a moment that you’re a social worker – I know some of you actually are. Let’s pretend that you’re a social worker and you have a client who is racist and sexist and their job puts them in a position of incredible power over people of color and women. Let’s pretend they say things that make you question their sanity and stability, that they suffer from delusions of grandeur and habitually neglect their physical health.
How would you promote the well-being, or the inherent worth and dignity, of Donald Trump?
If you asked Donald, I’m sure he would tell you that he is very important. Maybe he had one Sunday of religious exploration back in the day and that’s what stuck. In any case, I can’t imagine that he doubts his own inherent worth and dignity, at least at face value. Having studied human behavior in school and in life, I suspect that he has some deep-seeded fears of inadequacy that influence his behavior, but there are countless people much more qualified than myself to discuss the psychology of his behavior.
So, if Donald Trump likely has no problem owning his inherent worth and dignity, then why should we care about affirming and promoting it?
I’d like to suggest that “we affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of all people” has less to do with “all people” than it has to do with “we.”
Perhaps the face-value message of that statement, that we are all equal and deserve to be treated as such, is only one level.
I’d like to suggest that affirming and promoting the inherent worth and dignity of all people is a charge to those of us who claim these principles, a statement of how we intend to behave when we are in the arena.
Social work researcher and author Brene Brown has now famously quoted Theodore Roosevelt when speaking on this topic:
“It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly; who errs, who comes short again and again, because there is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who does actually strive to do the deeds; who knows great enthusiasms, the great devotions; who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat.” -Theodore Roosevelt
Brown’s work is another series of essays of its own accord. What I’d like to focus on here is the concept of the arena. In ancient times, gladiators fought to the death in the arena. Today, the stakes might be much lower with things like the Superbowl or Olympics.
But beyond spectator sports, there is another arena – the society where each and every day, we are accosted by racist, classist, and sexist systems of oppression, by environmental destruction, by the people emboldened by leaders who fuel the fires of discrimination with sensationalized hate speech and outright lies.
Each and every day, we are in the arena with Donald Trump. We are in the arena with the people who voted for him, the systems and patterns that got him into office, and the society that allows all of it to exist.
As Unitarian Universalists, our values clearly show us that we have no choice but to engage in this fight. What we must now do is decide how we will choose fight it.
Respecting the inherent worth and dignity of Donald Trump does not mean that his behavior is excusable. It does not mean that we will stop striving for a fair and peaceful world, that we will submit to hate.
Because affirming and promoting Donald Trump’s inherent worth and dignity says very little about him and everything about us.
Choosing to be a UU in this arena is choosing to side with love. It is choosing the high road. It is showing up. Being a UU in this arena is choosing to be a part of the reason most of us like to believe that the good folx will always win in the end.
It is also choosing our battles, protecting our energy, and trusting that the beloved community has our backs when we have to step away.
This arena is gruesome. It is exhausting to care so much in a world that seems not to. It is overwhelming to think about the massive work that is yet to be done.
But our children are watching. The future is depending on us. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for.
This country is still in its infancy in the grand scheme of things, and it hasn’t had the greatest childhood so far. Psychological research indicates that trauma responses – behaviors, sometimes maladaptive, that come about in response to traumatic events or circumstances – are passed from generation to generation if they are not intentionally addressed. Moreover, some biological research suggests that trauma leaves a legacy in our very DNA.
Left unacknowledged, trauma will always manifest elsewhere – as anger, as addiction, as issues with control or our sense of worth. These troubles compound with every generation it goes unaddressed.
I can’t begin to untangle the mess of trauma and pain that has yielded the current state of this country, but when we consider that it was stolen from her native people and built upon the backs of stolen people, the generational trauma theory makes some sense.
This is the arena we are in – an arena of trauma: generational trauma, cultural trauma, personal traumas, trauma to the land and the creatures we share it with. In such an arena, how does one hope to exist?
For me, I hope to exist bravely. I hope to stay steadfast in my values. I hope, when I hear Donald Trump spew hatred and lies about minorities or people who believe differently than him, I can affirm and promote my own inherent worth and dignity enough to not match his vitriol with my own, but to put my disgust and anger into positive action.
I hope I can affirm and promote his inherent worth and dignity enough to wish him the healing he so very clearly needs. I hope I can be surrounded with fellow UUs engaging in the labor of loving the hell out of this world as we all struggle to make a difference.
We are the ones we’ve been waiting for to heal the traumas that this country was built upon. We have the opportunity to continue the work of scrubbing clean the DNA of the world we live in, to tend to the soil and plant seeds instead of wondering why nothing will grow on poisoned land.
If we are lucky, our legacy will not be in the traumatized DNA of the generations to come, but in the great heights they might climb from trees rooted firmly in values that will not allow hate to persist, and will not stoop to hate’s level to end it.
It is a colossal and worthy cause. At best, these principles we strive to live by will not only be ideals but standards, and at worst, we know we will never find ourselves beside those cold and timid souls who were not willing or able to even try and commit to radical love – but we will affirm and promote their inherent worth and dignity, too.
“Whenever you are confronted with an opponent, conquer him with love.”
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’
But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”
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